Professors should offer more flexibility with final assignments

Alternatives to writing papers could help students broaden their skillset

Assignment alternatives accommodate students’ learning style preferences. PHOTO: iakovenko123 / Lightfield Studios

By: Meera Eragoda, Editor-in-Chief

Full disclosure: I am a horrible test-taker. So when I choose my courses for the semester, I look for ones that offer final papers over final exams. For students to really showcase what they’re learning, however, they should have the ability to choose between more than taking tests and writing papers. This is, of course, with the caveat that I’m a history major and I recognize that branching out from options like test-taking may not be possible for departments outside of the social sciences.

Studies have shown that people prefer to learn in multiple ways including being auditory learners, visual learners, kinesthetic (hands-on) learners, as well as through writing and reading. Traditionally, however, post-secondary institutions test people mainly through writing and reading, by way of tests or essays. If people have many learning styles, it does not make sense that students are typically tested in only two main ways. Not only should students not be pigeonholed into having to learn or be tested according to those two ways of learning, but letting them express themselves in different formats opens them up to gaining new skills.

I’ve been lucky enough to take classes where professors have offered final projects with the option of writing a paper or doing alternative assignments such as creating a podcast, comic, or webpage overview. This does not take away from the critical thinking required of students or from their ability to meet learning objectives — my professors would not be assigning these otherwise —  and actually just fosters creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. Additionally, alternative projects encourage students to learn to become familiar with different types of media which becomes vitally important given that media is integral to our lives and to many workplaces.

Without this type of flexibility, I would never have imagined my potential to do anything beyond writing papers or demonstrating written skills. I’ve always enjoyed learning most through auditory formats, so being able to make a podcast as a learning assignment helped me foster and explore new skills. This, in turn, made other technology seem less scary and I managed to complete a personal project on Adobe Premiere Pro. Similarly, being able to apply my course findings through a comic strip helped me gain illustration skills — they’re still not great but surprisingly better than what I thought they were — and now, one of my goals is to someday write a graphic novel. I was able to work on storytelling skills and turn academic information into an accessible comic format. This is something that I would never have thought about if not for assignments like these.

Writing skills are, of course, still important and professors should still assign projects that develop these skills. However, those are not the only skills worth knowing and by being flexible with assignments, professors allow students to explore different options and discover new skills or interests. 

Writing papers and taking exams are not the only ways to show critical thinking skills or to convey information to others. Final papers are usually a huge percentage of students’ grades and giving them the best chance to prove that they’ve learned and succeed is, frankly, a great idea.